Finding a cure for pessimism in Rio's favelas

This picture by Silvia Izquierdo of the Associated Press pretty much says it all.
This picture by Silvia Izquierdo of the AP pretty much says it all.

(A Spanish version of this post appears in Prodavinci)

The New Yorker published a shattering article this week by Jon Lee Anderson, about Caracas’ slow, brutal decadence. The city Anderson paints, seen through his foreign eyes, is known by all but it remains gloom-inducing: informal barrios where the only rule of law is violence; middle-class neighborhoods too terrified to fully integrate into the surrounding city; decaying public services; and lack of investment in public spaces.

Just as I was about to give up and let myself be overcome by despair, I read about the dynamic favelas, the poor slums that, much like in our Caracas, surround the hills of Rio de Janeiro.

The Associated Press reports that in one particular favela, Vidigal, home prices have gone from US$5,000 a few years ago to $25,000 now. The Guardian says that average home prices in Rio have shot up by 165% in the last three years. A house with two rooms (not bedrooms, rooms) in Rocinha, one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, has doubled, from $900 to $1,800 in a single year.

But Rio’s favelas are just like Caracas’ cerros, I say to myself. Could it be that this nightmarish problem that Anderson paints … can be solved?

One of the main things Rio has done is formalize many favelas. In the end of the day, nobody pays good money for a shack in a shantytown if property rights aren’t clear, right?

Formalizing is not a matter of simply giving out deeds to houses. Bureaucracies need to work with communities so that formal property rights do not clash with established property “traditions.” It’s not a matter of “giving” property rights, but of “recognizing” rights that are already there, that the community itself has already legitimized.

This is hard work, but it’s certainly doable. No rule, no statute imposed from high above can solve the myriad of details this process entails.

Another effort Rio has done is to map the favelas. For example, if you go to Google Maps, you can see a lot of the names of the streets in our urbanizaciones. But focus on Barrio Las Casitas de Petare, for example, and the names vanish. Streets, alleys, walkways … none seem to formally exist. An enormous percentage of the ranchos where many Venezuelans live simply do not have a street name or a number associated to them.

For those of us living in actual homes with street names, numbers (and the occasional name), with an actual deed, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who sees that as a privilege only reserved “for the rich.” Many of the activities we take for granted – from getting hired to opening a bank account or paying with a credit card – have an actual address associated to them. It is virtually impossible to do these things without a physical address where the postal service dares not tread.

They are confronting that problem head on in Rio. Thanks to lowering crime rates in the favelas and the work of a few committed NGOs laboring alongside local government, many streets, alleys, and walkways in Rio now have names, actual street signs, and houses are numbered.

Obviously, formalization ain’t a panacea. Mapping our barrios and incorporating their hidden capital can’t ensure success. Bringing peace to the favelas and the proliferation of public spaces – a park here, a library there – has obviously helped. And one can’t ignore the effect of the World Cup and the Olympics on a real estate market such as Rio’s. But to think that tackling the problems of our barrios requires the consent of the IOC is just another way of giving up.

Progressives love to say that “another world is possible.” It’s time they focused a little bit closer to home and began seeing that, with a little bit of effort and imagination, another barrio is also possible.